CLAIM: A photo shows cereal boxes filled with fentanyl that were recently seized by law enforcement officials in San Bernardino County, California.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The county sheriff’s department said the photo is from one of its drug busts earlier this year. It shows pills suspected of being MDMA, a club drug often referred to as ecstasy or Molly, not fentanyl.
THE FACTS: With Halloween around the corner, social media users have been sharing warnings about the possibility of potentially deadly drugs showing up in otherwise innocuous children’s treats.
The latest warning includes a photo of two cereal boxes — one Lucky Charms, the other Trix — and their contents. The image, which is circulating widely, purportedly shows pink-colored pills mixed in with the colorful cereal pieces.
“This was seized in San Bernardino County today. It’s Fentanyl mixed with cereal,” wrote one Instagram user in a post that was shared more than 25,000 times before being taken down.
“PLEASE SHARE AS HALLOWEEN GETS CLOSER SAVE A LIFE!!!!,” wrote another Instagram user who shared a screen grab of the earlier post and photo.
However, the photograph doesn’t show fentanyl in the cereal, but likely another less lethal recreational drug: MDMA, according to Mara Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, who added that lab tests have not yet been completed on the substance.
The photo comes from a joint investigation this summer by the sheriff’s office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that involved drugs being distributed through the mail, Rodriguez said in emailed replies on Monday. It does not depict the results of a recent drug bust, as the social media posts suggest.
The department declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.
The agency, however, stressed the incident doesn’t raise broader concerns about illegal drugs infiltrating the nation’s food supply.
“This is an isolated incident with individual packages, not a mass-produced or commercial/retail distribution system,” the sheriff’s department said in an emailed statement. “There is nothing to suggest that regular food networks have been compromised.”
Representatives for General Mills, the maker of Lucky Charms and Trix, did not respond to emails seeking comment this week.
The use of cereal to conceal the drugs is most likely a smuggling technique, “not a sinister attempt” to market illegal drugs to a younger demographic, as some social media users suggest, says Ryan Marino, an addiction medicine specialist at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio.
“The drug trade is a business and nobody is giving away expensive products for free,” he said. “It wouldn’t make any logical sense.”
Just last week, California authorities seized 12,000 suspected fentanyl pills hidden in candy boxes at Los Angeles International Airport. The county sheriff’s department said the suspected trafficker tried to go through security screening with packages of Sweet Tarts, Skittles and Whoppers filled with the drug.
The DEA also warned the public in an Aug. 30 news release about the increased presence of candy-colored “rainbow fentanyl,” which it billed as a tactic by drug cartels to sell the highly addictive and potentially deadly opioids to younger users.
Still, as trick-or-treat season approaches, the DEA says its so far found “no indication there is a connection” between fentanyl and Halloween, said Nicole Nishida, a DEA spokesperson in the Los Angeles field office.
“Traditionally, drug traffickers use different concealment methods to try and evade law enforcement detection,” she wrote in an email. “We have seen fentanyl pills and other drugs hidden in fire extinguishers, fish tanks, candy boxes, everyday household items, pallets, and even concrete blocks.”
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.